Review: Singapore Short Cuts Day 1 & 2

Now in its eighth edition, the Singapore Shorts series, organized by the Substation's Moving Images programme, has carved out a reputation for itself as an important outlet to showcase outstanding short films. Whereas First Takes provides a constructive space for dialogue between neophyte filmmakers and film buffs, The annual Singapore Shorts programme seeks to showcase more cutting edge, polished work. We review a couple of shorts from Day 1 and 2 of the event. (Note: We realize this is being published a little late, sorry about that!)

The Impossibility of Knowing
Dir: Tan Pin Pin

Commissioned by DMZ Korean International Film Festival, Tan Pin Pin's The Impossibility of Knowing is an exploration of cinematic form and its limitations. It is also an ambitious, if somewhat stunted investigation of memory and its discontents.

Tan Pin Pin initially planned to set out shooting footage of places laden with trauma, where people there experienced emotional tribulation or were victims of the cruel games of fate, but she soon recognized the limitations of images itself; the places she shot on film remained mere locales - inanimate, unsentimental. The canal remained a canal, and the house,a house. But as the voice over plays out, the juxtaposition between the bleak, sinister happenings as narrated, and the seemingly sterile images of different places creates a disjunct that disorients the viewer. We are forced to confront the impossibility of knowing the history of a place just by the image of a place itself.

Almost counter-effective then, is Tan's use of a stoic, almost authoritative voice to narrate the different stories. It actually subverted the very idea Tan wanted to explore: if the image was so painfully limited in its power to inform a viewer, why then does sound here become an almost omniscient presence? The film, which actually plays out like Old Places (directed by Royston Tan, Victric Thng and Eva Tang) for Sylvia Plath-types, should have, like Old Places, used different voices for the voice-overs. While Old Places was apologetically nostalgic, it abandoned the use of an overarching narrator, and its usage of multiple narrators actually forced you to form your own understanding of the different places.

What Tan doesn't realize is the postmodern irony in its title (i.e. if knowing was truly impossible, wouldn't it be impossible to know that knowing was impossible?), and in being so sure of the film's central thesis, undermines the very points she was trying to make.

Snow City
Dir: Tan Pin Pin

I have to admit I liked Snow City a lot more than The Impossibility of Knowing. Even though Snow City, as Tan stated, is "an accidental film" formed from her random archive of Singapore scenes, it is surprisingly coherent.

Finding beauty in banality has become the hallmark of Tan Pin Pin (that we love), as evinced from such films like Invisible City, Moving House and Singapore GaGa, and here she uses the most mundane scenes to weave together a loving portrait of Singapore Life. As the title hints at, the film evokes the wonder and beauty of snow, and yet steeps itself in the realities of the city; it manages to be at once grounded and imaginative. It finds humour in the simplest things, like a foreign worker taking shelter from the sun under a makeshift canopy.

With Tan's unadorned visual style,Snow City gently earns your attention instead of demanding it. The film then cajoles us to find solace - even joy - in our imagination; it is, at heart, a film about the importance of seeing and perspective - that if we look hard enough, we can find beauty in anything.

Solitary Moon
Dir: Eva Tang

The film was birthed from a quote from celebrated American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, and "the resultant haiku of a short film" is poetic and deeply stirring. At the start, Tang makes the florescent lights dance seductively, the playful lights on the walls of glass teasing and inviting. Her eye for image here is impeccable. As the film quickly progresses, the lights become more sterile, enveloping lonesome white-collared figures. The music by Zai Kuning and Koichi Shimizu is remarkably well composed, not only being neatly congruent with the entire film in tone, but its periodic beats fitting in snugly with the cuts from scene to scene. (Very good editing!)

What's most impressive is that for all its ephemeral beauty, the two-minute long film doesn't succumb to glib sentimentalism. Tang deftly refrains from emotionalizing loneliness; she merely evokes that feeling. She manages to imbue a clear lyricism to Solitary Moon, and the result is a mesmerizing cinematic elegy.

Dir: Afiq Omar

The brilliant, subtly funny Comfort is birthed forth from director Afiq Omar's desire to better understand the nature of his father's job through the film format; the film is a document of a day in the life of his taxi driver father. Omar spent an entire day in the seat of his dad's taxi, prodding him with questions, and along the way he manages to excavate trinkets of wisdom and nuggets of truth.

The film is first and foremost a documentary of his father's profession. Omar doesn't go as far as to plumb the depths of his dad's psyche, but film's main purpose is to give us an insight into the daily life of his dad and as the hardships faced by a taxi driver, and it does so in spades.

Comfort's brilliance (and conceit) lies in slyly playing up the multiple meanings of its title. On the most literal level, it refers to the taxi company the director's father works for, but the title also foregrounds the cruel irony of his dad's position: for someone who works for such a pleasantly named company, his is not an easy job, and involves much hard work. Yet he willingly puts up with his travails so that his son would be the one in comfort. The film is a loving ode to fathers and a grateful acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by them.

Whether Omar realizes it or not, he has created a film that metaphorizes the filmmaker-audience relationship; we are forced the entire film to take his very own view in the front seat of the taxi, and we never hear him speak. He takes the position of the audience through this, while his dad - just as the filmmaker does - tells his stories. He draws up a parallel between the filmmaker-audience relationship and the taxi driver-passenger one. His point being that just like the taxi driver-passenger relationship, the filmmaker-audience relationship goes both ways. They both need each other.

One Day I Forgot And Used My Hands
Dir: Charles Lim

The filmmaker accidentally reinvented filmmaking by using a camera without a lens and shooting with his hands blocking everything but a small gap. Camera obscura. A pure experiment on his part ends up looking a classic experimental film.

Well, the camera has always been seen as both a tool and an obstacle, and many directors lament over the lost-in-translation effect from vision to the actual shot footage. Here Lim presents the camera as something organic, as one with the director; it is no longer a mere tool, but it is a literal extension of the director (and vice versa). The lines between a director's vision (both imaginative and literal) and the mediated image are blurred, and in doing so Lim humanizes the camera; here it almost has a life of its own.

The film experiment harks back to a time when photography was more personal, and when celluloid was king; when images could not be easily mass produced and toyed with through myriad photo-editing programmes. The film is, hence, not merely a visual trance-out; it is also a walk down memory lane and an exercise in nostalgia.
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